On the Malaysian island of Penang, there are around 750 thousand permanent residents. On weekends and national holidays, they are joined by up to two and a half million tourists, both from other regions of Malaysia (Malaysians love to travel within their country) and from abroad. Recently, AirAsia has started direct flights there from Bali. What makes this small island located in the Malacca Strait in the northwest of the country so appealing?
For residents of "mainland" areas, the main attraction of the island is undoubtedly the sea. However, despite the abundance of beaches and coastal resorts to suit every taste and budget, Penang is not an island for traditional beach vacations – no one swims in the sea here. Enjoying magnificent sunsets and listening to the sound of the waves is done not on a beach lounge but in coastal cafes and restaurants. Food is one of the main entertainments for Malaysians, and crowds of local tourists come here every weekend for it. There are countless restaurants and cafes, and street food (hawker stalls) is very popular. By the way, in 2022, Malaysian roti canai was recognized as the world's best street food according to TasteAtlas. However, food is not the most important thing.
The island vividly showcases Malaysia's multicultural traditions, embodying a peaceful coexistence of colonial English, Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures – in architecture, food, customs, and way of life. Adding to this is Penang's long history, dating back to the 15th century, its unique nature - and it becomes clear that you can find everything here: museums, Buddhist and Hindu monasteries, Muslim mosques, beaches, fishing villages, tropical rainforest reserves, durian and nutmeg farms, rice fields, shopping in huge malls, numerous bars and restaurants catering to all tastes – from street hawker stalls to fine dining. Penang is considered the cultural capital of Malaysia, hosting a large number of exhibitions, festivals, concerts, parades, and other events.
List of Penang Attractions
Incredibly photogenic bridges connecting the island to the mainland of Seberang Perai (territorially part of the state of Penang). There are two of them. One of them is the Penang Bridge, spanning 13.5 km. Marathons are held on the Penang Bridge. The bridge also has a bad reputation – about 80 people annually choose it to end their lives. There's even a state commission established to address this issue. In addition to the Penang Bridge, there's also the longest bridge in Southeast Asia built in 2014, the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge, spanning 24 km, with 17 km of it crossing over the sea.
The Buddhist temple Kek Lok Si Temple is the largest Buddhist monastery in Malaysia and a feast for the eyes, especially during the Chinese New Year period when millions of colorful lights are lit up in the evenings.
Khoo Kongsi Clanhouse – starting from the 1800s, a huge number of immigrants from China arrived in Penang. To aid in their swift adaptation, so-called clans were formed and houses (kongsi) were built as initial shelters for the newcomers. The clans grew wealthy, competed in the grandeur of their houses, and temples were established alongside them. Today, Penang boasts the most significant concentration of clan architecture outside of China. The Khoo Kongsi clanhouse, built in 1906, stands as one of its most vivid examples. On the last Saturday evening of each month, the building is illuminated and entry is free.
Strolling through the streets of the UNESCO World Heritage Zone of Penang's capital, the city of Georgetown, allows you to witness and experience a unique symbiosis of English colonial, Chinese, Malay, and Indian architecture and cultures that has no parallels in Southeast Asia.
Penang boasts a unique collection of street art objects. Their history mostly began in 2012, when Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic created several murals on buildings for the city's celebration day. His "Children on Bicycle" (voted the world's best street art object by The Guardian) and "Boy on Motorcycle," located on Lebuh Armenian, became tourist attractions, with people waiting in long lines to take photos with them. Since then, the number of murals and sculptures has increased, and you can find them virtually everywhere. In my opinion, the most vibrant murals are created by Russian artist Julia Volchkova: "Fortune Teller," "Indian Women," and "Indian Boatman.
Maps with the locations of street art objects can be found on Google Maps or at the Penang Global Tourism office, and you can also pick them up at hotel receptions to create your own quest.
Hin Bus Depot – a former bus station that has transformed into a hub of contemporary art, hosting exhibitions and artist studios.
Spice Farm and Fruit Farm – located a short distance apart in the Batu Ferringhi area, these parks allow you to see over 250 varieties of tropical fruits and spices growing, as well as poisonous and medicinal herbs.
Escape Theme Park – a theme park with the world's longest water slide (1,111 meters) and the Guinness World Record holder for the longest zip coaster. By the way, entry for the "Super Kid" category (those above 61 years old) is free.
Penang Hill, Botanical Gardens, and the one-and-a-half-kilometer natural trail, The Habitat, constitute a tropical reserve located in the Air Itam area, 7 km from Georgetown.
Kerachut Beach and Meromictic Lake – a unique lake, the only one in Southeast Asia, where two layers of water, saltwater and freshwater, remain unmixed. The lake reaches its greatest depth, nearly three meters, during the rainy season (November – December and April). The lake is home to a unique fauna not found elsewhere. It is situated just behind Kerachut Beach, which is beautiful but not suitable for swimming due to strong currents. To reach these places and feel like you're at the edge of the world, you can hike 4 km through the Taman Negara Pulau Penang reserve trails or take a boat from the pier at the reserve entrance.
Blue Mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion) – a museum that was once a private residence, built in the 1880s, partially preserving the interiors and lifestyle of its long-gone owners. One of the most photogenic and photographed buildings in Penang.
Peranakan Mansion – an astonishing museum that was once a private residence of a 19th-century Chinese merchant, with fully recreated, richly decorated interiors.
Wat Buppharam – a Thai monastery built in 1942, is notable for housing a century-old Buddha statue that, as described in the Lonely Planet guidebook, is the size of a well-fed house cat. Make a wish and try to lift the statue. If you succeed, your wish may come true. To be certain, attempt to lift the statue a second time. If you fail this time, your wish will definitely be fulfilled.
Balik Pulau – a town 40 minutes away from Georgetown, the name of which literally means "the other side of the island." There, you'll find durian farms (Karuna Hill, Bao Sheng Durian Farm), nutmeg orchards, rice fields, one of the island's best beaches – Pantai Pasir Panjang, and the tranquil and picturesque fishing village of Kampung Pulau Betong.
How to get from the airport
Penang Airport is located 18 km from Georgetown. Shuttles (Rapid Penang Bus) with numbers 401, 401A, and 401E run every 30 minutes from there. The route goes through Komtar Bus Terminal (Jalan Penang), The Jetty (Weld Quay / Pengkalan Weld Bus Terminal), and Lorong Chulia. The journey takes about an hour, and the ticket costs around 3 ringgit. Boarding from the airport closes at 10:00 PM. Bus movement maps can be obtained at the bus stations. In Georgetown, you'll also find free CAT buses (details of their routes on the website www.rapidpg.com.my) and private buses like the Hop On Hop Off Bus.
Taking an online taxi will cost about 30 ringgit to Georgetown, and 50 ringgit to Batu Ferringhi. There's no Uber service in Penang, so it's advisable to install the Grab app beforehand.
Tuk-tuks are not available in Penang. In the center of Georgetown, there are still trishaws, but there are only a few of them, mainly following popular tourist routes in the city center.
Where to Stay:
The majority of the island's hotels are concentrated in two cities: Georgetown and Batu Ferringhi, as well as between them in the towns of Tanjung Tokong and Tanjung Bungah. Despite the grand names, these are more like neighborhoods that smoothly transition into each other. The town of Batu Ferringhi is situated a bit further away – it's a 30-40 minute drive from Georgetown along a mountain road, which might have traffic jams. Most of the hotels there are coastal. Nearby Batu Ferringhi, you can find the Escape theme park, a fruit farm, a spice farm, and the Penang National Park (Taman Negara Pulau Penang), from where boats depart to Monkey Beach and Kerachut Beach.
Where to Eat:
- Wai Kei Café (Lorong Chulia, 11-14 daily, 6-21 Monday - Friday)
- Goh Thew Chik (338A Lorong Chulia, 11-17 Wednesday - Monday)
- Teksen Restaurant (18 Lorong Carnarvon, 12-14:30 & 18-20:30 Wednesday - Monday)
- Holy Guacamole (65 Love Lane)
- Gurney Drive Hawker Stalls (Persiaran Gurney, 17-24)
- Lorong Baru Hawker Stalls (corner of Jalan Macalister & Lorong Baru, 17-20:30 Thursday - Tuesday)
- Taiba Shawerma (6 Jalan Tanjong Bungah, near Hompton Beach Hotel)
- David Brown’s (Penang Hill, sky terrace 9-23, restaurant 11-22)
- Ferringhi Garden (Jalan Batu Ferringhi, café 8-17, restaurant 17-23)
- Nan Guang (67 Jalan Balik Pulau, 10-17)
- Hai Boey Seafood (Teluk Kumbar, 11:30-14:30 & 18-22:30)